By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Image: Times of India
The Deccan Development Society (DDS) is a cooperative of nearly 5000 Dalit (oppressed caste) and Adivasi (indigenous) women, based in Zaheerabad in the South Indian state of Telangana. They engage in the conversation of biodiversity, promulgate green education and green banks and grow more than 40 species of native grains (millets, rice, lentils) and crops. Along with sustaining their agriculture livelihoods, their long-term goals are to achieve local food security, economic security and sustainable development.
The DDS was founded in 1983 when a group of Dalit and Adivasi women came together to form sanghams (village-level voluntary groups) to ensure that their basic needs of sustenance were met. Millet-based biodiverse farming provided solutions to many of the challenges these women and their families met. Not only do the ensure that there is a constant source of diverse and nutritious food into households but also do these farming methods supply fodder and firewood, improve the fertility of the soil and rely on non-chemical forms of organic farming. These traditional and indigenous methods of farming have also helped the local farmers avoid costly irrigation systems and largely removed the need for electrical power, which can be unreliable in the rural areas.
The Social Impact
According to a study conducted by the Equator Initiative, Sanghams have been exceptional organisational structures as they are driven by bottom-up decision-making and action, placing the power squarely with the grassroots farmers. The general body comprises of around 3500 women and village-level women members are actively involved in reviewing policies and finances as well as taking decisions. The delegation of executive decision-making concerning their livelihoods has given women the opportunity for the women to take up veritable leadership positions in their communities and decide how the resources are used and accessed. Moreover, this has also restored the agency and dignity to these marginalised women who are otherwise confined to the domestic sphere. DDS has also provided support to these women in terms of capacity-building and upskilling through media projects such as the community FM radio station, Sangham Radio. Managed by Dalit women, the radio station raises awareness and disseminates knowledge about nutritious food and traditional agricultural practices. In 2001, 10 Dalit women members were trained in video-production, filming, scripting, editing and dubbing.
DDS has also provided immense social mobility to the women farmers, against the odds of upper-caste control over land-ownership and cultivation. By reviving traditional ecological knowledge and practices, women have been engaged in and educated others in their communities about farming techniques, seed selection and seed saving and this has effectively shifted their social status from receivers to providers of seeds and knowledge. This also gives these women negotiating power as landlords and richer farmers source seeds and knowledge from members of the cooperative. Generating employment and income for these women, DDS has helped its members’ income rise from USD 2 to 5 and has contributed to alleviating poverty in the region. The DDS even established the Ananda Nilayam Shelter and Home Safe Home Committee, to provide a safe space for women facing and help them learn new livelihood skills. In 2019, six women from the cooperative were conferred with the United Nations Equator Prize for being “an outstanding example of a local, nature-based solution to climate change and sustainable development”.
The Environmental Impact
In the words of the DDS, “What started off with the intention of ensuring the simple sustenance needs of the sangham members has become a tool of empowerment for them to address the larger issues of food security, natural resource enhancement, education, and health needs of the region.” Collectively, the grassroots workers’ sustainable agricultural practices have contributed towards afforestation efforts in the region, increased ecological biodiversity and transformed swathes of degraded land into productive and fertile earth suitable for farming and cultivation. The sanghams form a robust network and provide immense support to their women entrepreneurs. They have their own seed banks, millet-processing units, food markets the sales of their produce and even supply to restaurants, including their own Café Ethnic, a local millet-based restaurant in Zaheerabad.
Over the decades, the DDS has developed and honed climate-smart agricultural practices that tackle chronic malnutrition and food insecurity in their communities. “Since 1996, they have designed and managed a radical, path breaking Alternative Public Distribution System (PDS), based on the principles of local production, local storage and local distribution to create a series of Community Grain Funds.” Through this system, they have become increase self-sustaining and no longer need to rely on the State, local governments, multinational corporations or genetically modified crops to feed themselves or secure consistent food supply. The members also ensure all this knowledge is passed along to the younger generations through green education, which is delivered by locally run balwadies (community-managed pre-schools) and Pachasaale (school for working children), both nationally and internationally recognised as “centres for creative learning and nutrition”.
Ultimately, “at the heart of all activities of DDS is the fundamental principle of access and control, which leads to the autonomy of local communities.” In an increasingly globalised world where top-down approaches to governance are adopted in all aspects of life including food supply and agriculture, the DDS has truly embodied the philosophy of thinking global but acting locally. Their work has influenced national and international institutions working towards sustainable development goals. This collective has not only reclaimed their autonomy over local communities, but also reached a level of food sovereignty, food security and economic security that is, perhaps, impossible to find elsewhere in the country.
1. M. Beaton, (2021), Deccan Development Society, India, Equator Initiative Case Study Series, UNDP, https://www.equatorinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Deccan-Case-Study-English-FNL.pdf
2. S. Rao, (2019, June 4), Top UN award for women of Deccan Development Society sanghams of Telengana, Times of India, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/top-un-award-for-women-of-deccan-development-society-sanghams-in-telangana/articleshow/69655911.cms
3. Deccan Development Society, http://www.ddsindia.com/www/default.asp